Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews and Douglas Hodge
I admired Princess Diana when I was a kid because she was nice when she didn’t have to be. She could have just attended the requisite state functions, but instead she made an effort to reach out to less fortunate people, and she set the bar for later celebrity activists. In the 1980s, she famously shook the hand of a man with AIDS, despite the widespread fear and misunderstanding of people who were HIV positive at the time. Her complicated personal life became tabloid fodder, but to her fans her flaws only made her more relatable. But the afternoon before her fatal car accident, I remember wondering aloud to my friends as we wandered between the rides at a local amusement park whether Princess Di was really a nice person, in real life, not just on the news.
Diana would lead me to believe that she was genuinely concerned about other people, almost to a fault, but I can understand why critics in the UK have been skeptical of this film since its release there in September. Oliver Hirschbiegel, who won critical acclaim for Downfall, based this next biopic on material from Kate Snell’s Diana: Her Last Love, which drew on interviews with people close to Diana in the last years of her life. Basing a film on a beloved public figure, especially showing her in a less than mythic light, is asking for trouble. A film about a public figure who is not yet well known in the mainstream might become the first if not only point of reference for most of its audience. A film about someone who is widely despised or admired can afford to take factual liberties if it justifies the feelings audiences already have. But this film is still too soon, even though it’s been sixteen years since her death.
If you don’t already know much about the life of the Princess of Wales (portrayed by Naomi Watts), do not expect much guidance here. This film is no documentary, it is first and foremost a very personal, tragic love story between Diana and the reclusive Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). If this film is taken as a simple romance, it becomes a tale of the maddening isolation of fame, but you might be left wondering about some details, such as who the man in the hospital bed is, or even who her boyfriend is, because his name isn’t mentioned early on.
Diana’s tragic flaw, as portrayed in this film, is that she did not quite know how to act in the moment to achieve her long-term goals. Hasnat asks her what her strategy is, after the BBC interview in which she discussed her husband’s long-term affair and admitted to cutting herself. As a tactic, everyone around her agreed it was a bad move. If her goal was to save her marriage, then the interview was a failure. Diana tells Hasnat that she did it because she wanted to “hit back,” but, through talking with him, she begins to understand what she actually wants. She has fun disguising herself to sneak around with him, but he also encourages her to find ways to use her fame to raise awareness for causes, such as banning the use of landmines. Sadly, when their relationship ends, she returns to her poor use of tactics without strategy, with painful results.
Hirschbiegel uses interesting camera angles throughout the film, especially in the beginning. It’s startling when we can’t be sure that Diana is not looking directly at us as she rehearses for the BBC interview. The first scene of the film is repeated at the end with a welcome variation in the framing, so that a film that began as odd glimpses into her life — rehearsing in the mirror for the interview, talking on the phone with her son — coalesces into something more: she has become a person to us, just maybe not the person we expected. The dialogue is in turn cute and awkward, like a romantic comedy, so I was never quite convinced that I was seeing a realistic portrayal of Princess Di. I’m really not at all sure how much of my positive reaction is merely nostalgia, so I keep trying to imagine what seeing this film would be like if it were about a generic princess (which is not too hard to do because Naomi Watts never quite looks like her) — and I think it would be less interesting or complete that way, but certainly would not be a disaster.